- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

DETROIT (AP) - Struggling simply to survive as readership and advertising drop, the Detroit Free Press celebrated winning a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for its reporting of a sex scandal that brought down the city’s mayor.

Minutes before the Pulitzer was announced, most of the Free Press staff crowded into the close quarters around the cluttered corner desks of Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick, the main reporters on the story.

When Elrick, reading from a computer screen, announced, “It looks like we won,” applause exploded and continued for nearly two minutes. Schaefer and Elrick hugged, as did other staffers.

“The community is in a better place now than it was a year ago, and although we take no joy in what Detroit had to go through, we take a lot of satisfaction that we did our job well,” Paul Anger, Free Press vice president and editor, said in an interview. “We upheld the First Amendment. We upheld the public’s right to know, and Detroit can move forward with confidence.”

Schaefer and Elrick were the first to uncover steamy text messages between a married Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor at the time, and Christine Beatty, his chief of staff.

Excerpts were first published in January 2008 and led to both being charged and eventually jailed. The reporting opened the door to intense scrutiny of Kilpatrick, his finances and the operations of the mayor’s office.

The paper has not said how it obtained the messages, which revealed that Kilpatrick and Beatty lied about their affair under oath during a 2007 whistle-blowers’ trial. The messages were left on Beatty’s city-issued pager.

Following a short investigation, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy charged Kilpatrick and Beatty in March 2008 with perjury, misconduct and obstruction of justice. Kilpatrick was required to leave the mayor’s office after he pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and no contest to assault.

The award for local reporting is the ninth Pulitzer for the Free Press, and Elrick and Schaefer were elated to have been a part of it.

Elrick said he was once offered a job as Kilpatrick’s press secretary but turned it down.

“In retrospect I made probably the best career decision I ever made by not taking that job,” he said. “The reason that job was attractive is because this guy had all the tools to be the greatest mayor of the 21st century, and he threw it all away.”

In an interview after the award was announced Monday, Schaefer said: “This whole thing has been a real emotional roller coaster ride for me, from extreme sadness for the city of Detroit to have to go through this, to joy when Kym Worthy charged the mayor.”

It’s been a tough year for Detroit in general. The mortgage crisis has hit the city as hard as any place in the country. The turmoil of the domestic auto industry continues to lead to job cuts and add to the city’s skyrocketing unemployment.

As the economy has foundered, the fortunes of the Free Press and its main competitor, The Detroit News, have dimmed.

Home delivery has been reduced to the three days a week most popular with advertisers _ Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. The hope is that the papers _ which share a business side under a joint operating agreement _ can cut operating costs, without sacrificing newsroom staff, to weather the recession.

The Free Press’ Mike Thompson also was named a Pulitzer finalist in the editorial cartooning category.

The Free Press is owned by Gannett Co., based in McLean, Va.

The Pulitzers are the most prestigious award in journalism and are given out annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of the 19-person board. Each award carries a $10,000 prize except for the public service award, which is a gold medal.

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On the Net:

Pulitzer Prizes: http://www.pulitzer.org

Detroit Free Press: http://www.freep.com

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